The tumultuous events of the Arab Spring have been driven by a desire for justice among long-oppressed populations. As new governments come to power across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), an unprecedented opportunity has emerged to promote the rule of law and accountability.
To take advantage of this opening and protect democratic gains, new Arab government have become increasingly interested in joining the International Criminal Court (ICC). Based in The Hague, the ICC was established 10 years ago to prosecute individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity
Under the umbrella of the Coalition for the ICC—a global network of non-governmental organizations—MENA civil society has been working to harness the region’s increasing momentum toward justice to convince regional government to join the Court.
In November 2012, Arab civil society leaders attended the annual meeting of the ICC’s governing body—known as the Assembly of States Parties (ASP). There, these leaders met with states and other stakeholders to discuss ways to raise awareness about the ICC in the MENA region and promote the benefits of ratifying the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty.
Historically, most Arab states have expressed interest in the Court’s work. Nevertheless, despite the number of ICC crimes in the region, only one Arab state, Jordan, had accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction before the Arab Spring. As a result, in MENA, accountability for grave crimes has long been absent, and impunity the norm.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, hope has emerged for renewed regional interest in ending impunity for grave international crimes. Significantly, after the fall of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, ratification of the Rome Statute was one of the first acts taken by Tunisia’s interim government. In addition, during the early part of the Libyan revolution, the UN Security Council used its power under the Rome Statute to give the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed by Muammar Ghaddafi and several other Libyan officials.
The ICC is often described as a court of last resort. Indeed, its work complements national jurisdictions and is triggered, by and large, only when member states are genuinely unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute grave crimes.
As such, ICC membership can act as a catalyst for national judicial reform, spurring states—such as Tunisia—to enact legislation that reflects a responsibility to ensure accountability for grave crimes at the national level. In turn, civil society monitors ensure that governments follow through on their commitments to combat impunity, and advance good governance and the rule of law.
Whether struggling for freedom from authoritarian regimes—in Syria for example—or debating post-revolutionary futures—in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt—justice reform has been one of the major pillars of the Arab Spring. Strengthening the rule of law—be it in the shape of constitutional reform, ratification and implementation of international treaties, or the prosecution of former or current state leaders—is highly contested and has contributed to ongoing political upheaval across the region.
In Libya, for instance, there is division on the best path toward accountability for former members of the Gaddafi regime. Some advocate for ICC suspects Saif Al Islam and Abdallah al-Senussi to be turned over to the Court, while others call for domestic prosecutions. Irrespective of the outcome, these debates are a clear example of how international justice impacts people’s perceptions of accountability.
Meanwhile, because of divisions within the UN Security Council, the ICC has been unable to take action against the escalating conflict in Syria. At the November 2012 ASP meeting, Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, urged all 121 ICC member states to support an initiative, launched by Switzerland in June 2012, calling for the UN Security Council to refer Syria—which has not accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction—to the Court. Ziadeh also urged Council members to put aside their differences in the interest of justice.
The Syrian situation starkly underscores the urgent need for all Arab states to ratify the Rome Statute, namely, to avoid leaving victims of grave crimes at the mercy of international politics. Increased engagement with the ICC and Rome Statute also reinforces the justice reform agenda in Arab states, which are increasingly recognizing the rule of law and protection of human rights as the most effective long-term solutions to many social and political problems.
Joining the ICC would go a long way toward furthering the legitimacy of post-Arab Spring governments. By joining the ICC and implementing its provisions into national law, new Arab regimes would demonstrate their commitment to the calls for justice underpinning the region’s uprisings. Arab support would also help the Court itself, which needs the involvement of regional governments, civil society and the wider public to carry out its critical mandate.
November’s meeting of ICC member states was a valuable opportunity for MENA civil society groups to strategize about ways to convince new Arab governments to end impunity for grave crimes by joining the Court and establishing a strong and independent rule of law at the national level.
At the current historical juncture, Arab leaders are faced with a unique chance not only to bring justice to perpetrators of grave crimes, but also to establish a lasting legacy of accountability for future governments built on the accomplishments of the Arab Spring.